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This article was published on April 15, 2021

Instagram apologizes after algorithm promotes harmful diet content to people with eating disorders

A new search feature inadvertently triggered the recommendations

Instagram apologizes after algorithm promotes harmful diet content to people with eating disorders
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

Instagram has apologized for a “mistake” that led its algorithm to promote harmful diet content to people with eating disorders.

The social network had been automatically recommending terms including “appetite suppressant,” which campaigners feared could lead vulnerable people to relapse.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, told the BBC that the suggestions were triggered by a new search functionality:

As part of this new feature, when you tap on the search bar, we’ll suggest topics you may want to search for. Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests, and weight loss should not have been one of them.

The company said the harmful terms have now been removed and the issue with the search feature has been resolved.

[Read: The biggest tech trends of 2021, according to 3 founders]

Content that promotes disorders is banned from Instagram, while posts advertising weight-loss products are supposed to be hidden from users known to be under 18.

However, the error shows that policies alone can’t control the platform’s algorithms.

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